The identity crisis of Orthodox Jewry

We have to market Judaism in an appealing fashion so that young people will embrace tradition with a thirst for knowledge rather then reject standards of common practice in frustration.

Texting cellphone 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Texting cellphone 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Recently my daughters who are in their upper teens went on a short excursion with a group of friends. Part of the trail passed by a monastery, and upon their return, they expressed their disappointment in some of their peers who decided to go in to the monastery itself. Considering that all of the teenagers on the trip are from Orthodox home, and that according to most Orthodox rabbis it is forbidden to enter a church or monastery, my daughters were particularly upset that this considerable group of their friends would casually breach Orthodox halacha.
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Even more disturbing to them was that when they told their friends that they would not enter the monastery as it was forbidden according to rabbinic halacha, the majority of the group reacted explaining that this was only a Rabbinic prohibition and not worthy of serious consideration. As an Orthodox rabbi who teaches students at the impressionable age of 19 and older, I question where this lack of respect for Jewish law comes from because unfortunately this is just one example of what has become a widespread problem throughout the Orthodox Jewish community in both Israel and the Diaspora.
In an article which appeared in The Jewish Week recently, it was revealed that the practice of texting on Shabbat (Sabbath) is becoming increasingly prevalent, especially, but not exclusively, among Modern Orthodox teens. In fact the article claimed that the practice has become so widespread – some say half of Modern Orthodox teens text on Shabbat – that it has developed its own nomenclature of keeping “half Shabbat” - reserved for those who observe all the Shabbat regulations except for texting.
These Shabbat texters, according to anecdotal evidence, include kids who grew up in less-observant homes as well as students from haredi homes. When charged with discovering the root of the problem and its origins some of the teens said that just like their parents make their own compromises with the letter or spirit of Jewish law, as exhibited by Orthodox men who do not wear a kippah (skullcap) on the job or Orthodox women who wear pants or do not cover their hair once married, both considered violations of halacha and Jewish practice; so too they felt that sending a text message on Shabbat was no different or worse then their parent’s halfhearted allegiance to the letter of rabbinic law. As such many teens unashamedly discuss whether they keep ‘half-Shabbat’ or ‘full Shabbat.”
Dr. Michelle Friedman, a psychiatrist who works extensively in the Orthodox community is quoted as saying,
“You can’t say that the kids who text on Shabbat are ‘off the derech, (leaving the path of Orthodoxy), as texting on Shabbat does not necessarily lead to other violations, it is a separate category.”
This statement from an Orthodox standpoint is simply not true. An Orthodox Jew is expected to understand that when we compromise even what appears to be the smallest or most insignificant item within our faith, our essential foundation is in danger of a steady deterioration. These disturbing phenomena demand our undivided attention, and even more importantly an analysis regarding our ineptitude in an attempt to improve and radically change this tide of disobedience and irreverence. One of the youth interviewed for this same article responded,
“Preaching to teens is ineffective; it’s a waste of energy to argue with the kids.” While one can make a case that in our generation indeed it may not be beneficial to emphatically argue with or even preach to our youth, I am convinced that it is vital for parents, rabbis, and educators to find ways to communicate and discuss the positives of Judaism with caution and care if we stand a chance of nurturing our teens with an admiration for rabbinic establishment. We have to market Judaism in an appealing fashion so that students will embrace tradition with a thirst for knowledge rather then reject standards of common practice in frustration. This rejuvenation begins with recognizing something which has consistently resurfaced in Israel; the preservation of Jewish identity cannot be accomplished merely by connecting with the land of Israel or subscribing to Zionism. The connection to the land of Israel is very much part of Jewish identity but Jewish identity is not contingent upon a connection to the land. Orthodoxy demands a thorough and widespread commitment which is contingent upon understanding and embracing a Biblical connection to God first, Jews second and then to our land.
Dr Daniel Gordis of the Shalem Center Jerusalem recently asked,“In this era of unprecedented challenges to Israel, Zionism and Jewish identity both in Israel and in the West, what will it take for Judaism to remain sustainable in a rapidly changing world?”
Dr Gordis’s question is itself important because it establishes a premise which is unfortunately curbed by many observant Jews living in Israel; the struggle to preserve Jewish identity is not one which is exclusively reserved for the Diaspora nor is it one which challenges the non observant Jewish community; it is one which is alive and festering in the streets of Tel Aviv, Haifa and even Jerusalem and it envelops all denominations of the Jewish population. Gordis insists that the average American Jewish college student today knows far too little to engage in any meaningful Jewish conversation and as such there is little chance that in the future they will care about their  Judaism or their connection to Israel. If this problem confronts the average secular American Jewish college student because of his lack of knowledge, then it becomes even more of a conundrum knowing that our Orthodox youth are growing disinterested and less committed regardless of the supposed qualitative religious education we are meant to provide them with (but not necessarily achieving) and regardless of the fact that they may be active participants (at least on the surface) within the Orthodox Jewish community.
So what do we do?
Dr Gordis explains that Jewish communities must enhance and promote Jewish education in order to transmit the intellectual and spiritual richness of the Jewish tradition; it is imperative that we kindle a sense of yearning for a deep Jewish identity, which Gordis explains can only be accomplished by constantly revamping and improving Jewish education,
“Across America, Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, the time has come to seek more than greater efficiencies or slightly modified curricula. This is the time to ask not what is working, but what is not and to reconfigure with courage our educational systems.”
Jewish education must start teaching, more importantly, discussing basics with our students and children. These basics should include an analysis of what strengthens and weakens their Jewish identity, discussions regarding basic tenants of Jewish beliefs, and encouraging more opportunities for our children to express, question and challenge fundamentals which either do not speak to them or that they simply might not be conscious of or conscientious towards.
This initiative can only succeed if it is coupled with the following acknowledgment. The fact that our teens are not respecting rabbinic law established in the past is an indication that they do not have enough respect for their rabbis in the present. This of course is a problem for the Jewish community particularly in Israel where the rabbinate institution is monopolized and often viewed as a political entity and authoritative machine rather then a religious organization disseminating knowledge and facilitating religious services with compassion and sensitivity. Our teens are highly sophisticated and should not be underestimated. Their dismissal of halacha represents disenchantment with an institution which they have been consistently told to respect but which they consistently fail to understand. Many of them struggle to connect with rabbis who are aloof, disengaging, and at times narcissistic. Our rabbis must redirect their energies towards offering Judaism in an appealing and honorable manner.
Only by taking these steps can we rest assure that rabbinic law will remain intact, Jewish identity will perpetuate and Shabbat will remain Shabbat.
The writer teaches at Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves as a lecturer under the Harel Division for the Rabbanut of the IDF. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education.